We’re proud to present an interview with groundbreaking novelist, poet and memoirist Marge Piercy. Woman on the Edge of Time made an impression on me when I read it in my teens, and Gone to Soldiers later challenged my thinking about what women and men should and could write about.
– Martin Ott
Who has been a major influence on your writing?
Influences are a matter of adolescence and early adulthood. After that, if you’re real, you’re on your own path. American prosody comes from Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson and that’s where I started. I read widely and had an excellent education in British and Irish literature in the Honors program at the University of Michigan and in grad school at Northwestern. In the latter, I began an intensive exploration of American literature which I continued after I left to work.
Allen Ginsberg opened my eyes to the possibility of writing far more directly and emotionally out of my own experience and politics than I had been led to believe was something that could be done.
I’d say the news is a far more extensive influence on me, the economy, what happens to people I know or don’t know but feel for than any “influence” of the sort you mean. I’m not in the academy but out in the regular world. At the moment about half my town is out of electricity from the snow hurricane – people without heat or water. NSTAR seems in no hurry to get them back up. I just wrote a poem about that. That’s my influence of the moment.
Can you give us insight into your creative process?
My creative process is to sit down at the computer and work. I write most days I am not on the road for gigs. More ideas swarm in me than I can get to before they evaporate. I write. I read aloud. My cats approve but often I don’t. I revise. I try again. I revise again. I turn the poem about trying different line breaks, verse paragraph or stanza breaks, beginnings, endings. I look at my imagery with a cold eye. I put the title through several revisions, usually. The first time I perform the poem, I find the weak spots and go home and rewrite again.
How does writing both fiction and poetry impact the other genre?
There’s very little cross over between the fiction and the poetry. Generally an idea comes with the genre attached. One exception happened recently when I jotted notes while I was doing a miniresidency. I thought it would be a poem. Then when I sat down to write it, it became an essay instead. It was just too prosy and diffuse to be a poem, but it was something I wanted to write about. “Gentrification and its discontents.”
The other exception is when I am doing research for a novel or nonfiction, often I experience things that produce poetry. They are about our experiences during research and have no direct connection with the prose work. Examples: Slides from my recent European trip in Available Light; the poem “The happy man” in The Hunger Moon.
Can you share an example of overcoming adversity to keep your writing dream alive?
I left graduate school and worked part time living in a slum apartment in Chicago in order to write what I needed to. Staying in academia was stifling my poetry and fiction. It was a hard life. I dressed from rummage sales, ate whatever was cheap, dealt with the experience that nobody but me took me seriously as a writer. That went on for some years. I could not publish serious fiction about being a woman at that time. My poetry got published long before my fiction could. The world had to change from women’s liberation before I could break through with my fiction beyond an occasional short story. I could not make a living from my writing until I was 32. I have done so ever since.
What project(s) are you working on now?
I have a contract with PM Press for a book of short stories. Some of them I wrote years ago, but once I had the contract, I began writing new ones. I’ve written eight so far and hope to write a couple more before the book is due. I have been sending them out and getting them into various zines. I am enjoying working on short fiction very much. It feels good to get back into a genre after two decades away from it.
My agent has a new novel I completed just before I started writing short stories.
I am writing a lot of poetry, as usual.
As I said, I wrote an essay two weeks ago. I am not sure what to do with it. Usually I only write essays when approached to do so. Haven’t figured out where to send it.
What is something about you that writers and readers may not know?
I am an avid gardener. Ira Wood and I grow almost all our own vegetables (exceptions being red onions, avocados, artichokes) and bush fruit, sour cherries and pears. I freeze, dry, can. Put up enough paste tomatoes & 4 kinds of tomato sauce so we never have to buy any. I planted what has become a rhododendron forest years ago. Many beautiful trees. A rose garden (no hybrid teas; no bushes requiring poisons) – I actually know a lot about roses and freely give advice. Lots of daylilies. Very few annuals except marigolds & sunflowers that I start from seed. I actually start almost everything we grow from seed, except perennials. Our ornamental gardens are like British cottage gardens, a mix of perennials and bushes. I grow lots of herbs for cooking and medicinal uses.
I’m a very good cook. These days I mostly cook Mediterranean – all the way around. Provencal, Italian, Spanish, Greek, Middle Eastern, Moroccan. The exception is on the Jewish holidays when I do some traditional Ashkenazi dishes as well as Sephardic and Mitzraki. For over thirty years, I have conducted a Seder for friends and now into the third generation. I update my Haggadah a bit every year and do most of the cooking. We no longer hold it in our dining room as we only have room for fifteen and it has grown far beyond that.
I find that gardening and cooking make a good accompaniment to writing. The rewards are physical and it’s good to do something besides sit on my ass in front of a computer.
About the Author
Marge Piercy is the author of seventeen novels including The New York Times Bestseller Gone To Soldiers; the National Bestsellers Braided Lives and The Longings of Women, and the classic Woman on the Edge of Time; eighteen volumes of poetry including The Hunger Moon and The Moon is Always Female, and a critically acclaimed memoir Sleeping with Cats. Born in center city Detroit, educated at the University of Michigan, the recipient of four honorary doctorates, she has been a key player in some of the major progressive battles of our time, including the anti-Vietnam war and the women’s movement, and more recently an active participant in the resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.